Use of High Beams Does Not Justify Traffic Stop, According to New Jersey Supreme Court

High Beam IndicatorThe Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits police from detaining a person temporarily, or stopping a vehicle on the road, without reasonable suspicion of some sort of unlawful activity. Courts are obligated to throw out charges originating from a traffic stop, such as driving while intoxicated (DWI), if the stop violated the driver’s constitutional rights. The New Jersey Supreme Court recently considered whether this state’s high-beam statute can justify a traffic stop under the Fourth Amendment. It ruled in State v. Scriven that the stop was unconstitutional because the officer did not witness an actual violation of the high-beam statute.

The “exclusionary rule” requires courts to suppress evidence obtained by police in violation of a defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights. An officer who initiated a traffic stop must justify the stop based on a suspected traffic offense, such as erratic driving or running a stop sign. Without reasonable suspicion, the state cannot use any evidence obtained as a result of that stop. This might include the officer’s testimony about the driver’s appearance or behavior, field sobriety tests, and Alcotest results.

Although the exclusionary rule is a powerful tool for protecting a defendant’s civil rights when police overstep their authority, courts have identified some exceptions. One of these, the “community care exception,” allows police to search private property without a warrant, as well as possibly detain a person or stop a vehicle, in the course of protecting the public from a hazardous situation. A hypothetical scenario might involve a police officer stopping a vehicle to warn about a hazardous road condition and then arresting the driver based on observations that lead the officer to suspect DWI.

New Jersey law regulates the use of “distribution of light, or composite beam” headlights, commonly known as high beams. In situations in which a driver would not otherwise be able to see people, vehicles, and other obstacles without the additional light provided by high beams, the statute requires their use. It prohibits their use, however, when a driver approaches an oncoming vehicle less than 500 feet away. The driver must switch back to the headlights’ regular setting in that situation so “that the glaring rays are not projected into the eyes of the oncoming driver.”

The arresting officer in Scriven was in the process of investigating an abandoned vehicle when he saw the defendant’s car “traveling with its high beams on at a normal speed in this well-lit residential area.” He signaled the defendant to pull over and approached the vehicle. He claimed that he detected the odor of marijuana and noticed items inside the vehicle he thought might be drug paraphernalia. A search of the defendant revealed a handgun, resulting in weapons charges. The defendant moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the officer lacked reasonable suspicion to stop his vehicle.

The trial court granted the motion to suppress, finding that the defendant was not in violation of the high-beam statute at the time of the stop because no oncoming vehicle was present. Since the officer had no “objectively reasonable basis” to suspect a high-beam statute violation, the court also rejected prosecutors’ community care exception argument. Both the Appellate Division and the Supreme Court affirmed this ruling.

New Jersey DWI attorney Evan Levow has practiced in this state for more than two decades. Our experienced and skilled team can help you understand your rights and defend your rights against the state’s accusations. Contact us today online or at (877) 593-1717 to schedule a free and confidential consultation to discuss your case.

More Blog Posts:

Police Cannot Search Vehicle Solely Because It Came from a State Where Marijuana Use is Legal, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, September 4, 2016

Dashcam Videos from New Jersey Police Vehicles Are Public Record, According to Appellate Division Ruling, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, July 20, 2016

“Protective Sweep” Exception Allowed Police to Search New Jersey DWI Suspect’s Car, According to Court, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, May 16, 2016

Photo credit: Ehsnils (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.